“Absent presence”: female narrative strategies in modern Polish literature
The culture of the nobility, with their strong influence in forming Poland’s very special mentality, established the Polish view of the woman and her role in society. What is particularly characteristic of women’s position in Poland still today is the notion of the inherent nature of femininity and the idea that a woman’s purpose is first and foremost to be a mother. The Polish woman symbol has another specific dimension, the strongly emotional image of “The Polish Mother” (Matka-Polka), who – like the Virgin Mary – unselfishly sacrifices her own child not just for the common good but, in Poland’s case, for the fatherland that has endured centuries of suffering. This determines the Polish view of women in general and the Polish woman’s self-image: she knows that she is expected to fulfil the traditional feminine scenario. It is this very old tradition that makes the “feministic” problem, in all its different senses, still a very controversial issue in Polish cultural and literary contexts. Herein lies a powerful reason for the restrictive, reserved way that “femininistic” themes have been and still are treated in Polish literature, which is heard clearly in discussions of the works by young Polish female writers. Several of these works published in the beginning of the 1990s made an attempt to re-evaluate the traditional image of women in Polish literature. Portrayals of women by Izabela Filipiak, Manuela Gretkowska, Natasza Goerke and Olga Tokarczuk especially deviate from the traditional figures in earlier Polish literature.
In their view of the world and in their narrative strategies, these writers have more or less unconsciously distanced themselves from tradition and created their own means of approaching “woman” and “femininity”. A distinguishing feature here is that their strategies are all characterised by a kind of narrative and linguistic mimicry. Borrowing Luce Irigaray’s term, one might be tempted to claim that they represent the “female mimicry of male discourse” and thus through this kind of mimetism (or its parody) disrupt patriarchal logic. As Irigaray argues, “To play with mimesis is thus, for a woman, to try to recover the place of her exploitation by discourse, without allowing herself to be simply reduced to it.” The focus in this discussion is on the works of Natasza Goerke and Olga Tokarczuk. They belong to the same generation of writers, and both take a stand against the new feministic trends in Polish literature, although their ways of using and treating the “feminine” aspect are very different. Their female characters have one thing in common: they live in a society run by men. Aware of this unjust division and treatment, these authors bring up, convey and defend the nature and rights of femininity in their writing – albeit in different ways.
In a similar way, Goerke and Tokarczuk realise that the only way to get at and decode the deeply rooted and obsolete ideals and notions about the differences between the sexes is to attack their reflection in the cultural stereotypes and national myths, where foremost Mother Poland and motherhood have their given places. When Goerke and Tokarczuk take the somewhat Promethian role of speaking in the name of women and femininity, they see all these banal patterns as their greatest opponents. At the same time, however, they use protective masks and manoeuvers to be able to put a distance between themselves and the reality they describe. Their “feminine mimicry” is however expressed – as I try to argue – in a completely different way. Goerke takes on the male perspective in her narrative worlds. This mimicry that Goerke uses to keep at arm’s length from these ideas allow her to go over the boundaries of the feminine, staked out by culture and tradition, and make the cultural absurdities of Poland come out even more clearly and sharply. Tokarczuk’s writing is somewhat different. Her approach to patriarchal stereotypes and male values is more of the “non-aggressive” type, almost quiet. This does not mean that Tokarczuk does not take up the fight against these stereotypes and patterns that devalue women, but she does this in quite another way. Her mimicry is made up of a conscious mythologising and even a re-sacralisation of the female sphere she describes.
Goerke’s and Tokarczuk’s books deal not only with a position of resistence toward patriarchal stereotypes and male values in Polish literature. Their works also put forth a female perspective in the literature under consideration – it is “women’s femininity” that is discussed and uncovered in all its vulnerability. The works of these authors were created under the influence of the past decade’s feminist debates in Poland and in opposition to the strong patricharchal tradition. Goerke’s and Tokarczuk’s literary strategies and protective narrative manoeuvers thus give us a salient example of how difficult is the woman’s path, from a position of subordination dictated by tradition, to freedom; especially in a country that is so strongly formed by the burden of its history.
Uppsala: Texgruppen I Uppsala AB , 2008. 133-148 p.